Why the official Iranian election results are suspect

McClatchy NewspapersJune 17, 2009 

TEHRAN, Iran — In American politics, it would be as if President George W. Bush won re-election over Sen. John Kerry in 2004 by taking Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, doing surprisingly well in liberal New York City and besting his 2000 vote totals by 40 percent.

What really happened in last Friday's Iranian presidential election, whose reported results have set off the deepest political crisis here in 30 years, may never be known.

However, unexplained police movements on the evening of the election, the exceptionally fast counting of handwritten ballots and some inexplicable election returns are among the reasons that opposition candidates and analysts cite when they say they suspect the vote was rigged.

Iran's theocratic regime proclaimed incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the landslide victor, with 24,592,793 votes, compared with 13,338,121 for his closest challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, according to Interior Ministry figures as of Monday.

Ahmadinejad's opponents don't believe those numbers. They've taken to the streets every afternoon, wearing signs that say, "Where's my vote?" or "I wrote Mousavi; they read Ahmadinejad."

Of course, it's possible that Ahmadinejad won. He's popular with many Iranians in ways that Westerners find hard to understand. A visit to a polling station in the eastern Tehran district of Narmak on election day turned up no voters in that Ahmadinejad stronghold who said they'd cast ballots against the incumbent.

While almost every other major Iranian political figure has been accused of corruption, Ahmadinejad has had no such scandals. He's distributed cash and potatoes and provided roads and development projects to the rural poor, winning support from non-elite Iranians, who are used to getting nothing from Tehran while the rich get richer.

A nationwide scientific public-opinion survey May 11-20 found Ahmadinejad ahead by two to one, with a very large number saying that they were undecided. The groups Terror Free Tomorrow and the New America Foundation conducted the telephone poll of 1,001 voters.

There also are good reasons to be suspicious, however.

Things seemed to go well on election day, when Iranians by the millions — a record turnout, apparently — gathered at mosques, schools and other voting places. Citizens presented their identification cards, received voting slips and wrote in their candidates' names. The candidates' names were posted on the wall for all to see. The voting slips went into large plastic ballot boxes, and voters touched their index fingers to pads of ink.

There were scattered reports of opposition candidates' poll observers not being allowed into polling places, but no overt signs of voter intimidation or other troubles, in Tehran at least.

What happened next is opaque. There were no international observers. None of the ballots has been seen publicly; they're under guard at the Interior Ministry in downtown Tehran, which is under Ahmadinejad's control.

By late Friday afternoon, the atmosphere in Tehran was beginning to change. Morning newspapers had carried news of "Operation Sovereignty," a police maneuver in Tehran that involved tens of thousands of police units. A reporter driving near the Interior Ministry at the time saw security presence being beefed up, as if the authorities expected trouble.

According to a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid, the Interior Ministry brought in loyalists from the provinces to tabulate the votes, furloughing its regular employees and locking them out of the building.

The diplomat's account couldn't be confirmed; a McClatchy request to speak with someone at Iran's Election Commission was turned down Monday, and the next day the government ordered foreign journalists in Iran on temporary visas to stay off the streets and prepare to leave the country.

Aides to Mousavi, who have an obvious motive to say so, speculate that the votes may never have been counted at all.

If they were, the handwritten ballots were tallied amazingly fast. Around the time the polls closed, state-run news media reported that Ahmadinejad had a commanding lead of almost 70 percent with slightly less than a fifth of the votes tabulated.

On Saturday morning, officials at the press ministry posted a statement that foreign journalists' visas wouldn't be extended because there was no need for a runoff. However, government spokesmen had assured reporters all week that no results would be available until late Saturday.

According to Monday's Interior Ministry figures, only 420,000 ballots, a little more than 1 percent of the total of 39.3 million, were invalidated, most likely because of illegible or incorrect names written on them.

Ahmadinejad showed strength in surprising places, according to the official figures.

He beat Mousavi, a former prime minister and ethnic Azeri, in Mousavi's home province of East Azerbaijan, including the provincial capital, Tabriz — urban areas were thought to be Mousavi's strength — by 435,000 votes to 420,000.

Analysts in Washington and Tehran called such results suspect and said the same about the count in the city of Tehran, where it's often hard to find someone with a good word to say about Ahmadinejad. The incumbent barely lost the capital to Mousavi, by 2.1 million to 1.8 million, according to the official results

More detailed results showed Ahmadinejad winning 11 out of 12 districts in Tehran province, many by substantial margins.

The 24.6 million votes Ahmadinejad is said to have received are 7 million more than he received in a run-off that propelled him to the presidency four years ago. While that's not inconceivable, this election appears to have brought out many anti-Ahmadinejad voters who boycotted the 2005 election.

Ahmadinejad has dismissed charges of fraud. The Guardian Council, which oversees elections, agreed to recount some ballots. Which or how many isn't clear, however, and there's unlikely to be independent oversight.

(Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Washington.)

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